This memoir starts with a bang and then meanders to a crawl.
A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS. Elena Gorokhova. Simon & Schuster. 308 pages. $26.
The first paragraphs of Elena Gorokhova’s memoir about her Cold War-era Soviet Union upbringing are so atmospheric and pointedly descriptive that everything in the real world seems to grow quiet. She yearns for her mother to have hailed from Leningrad with “its facades and stately bridges marinated for more than two centuries in the city’s salt wet air” instead of central Russia (“She came from where they lick plates”), then deftly entwines her characteristics with the Soviet Union itself. Both are “overbearing, protective, difficult to leave.”
With such lines, Gorokhova has the reader in the palms of her hands. We are well primed for unusual landscapes and characters, cultural differences and details of how she ended up escaping to the United States with “a ravaged suitcase on the KGB inspector’s table packed with twenty kilograms of what used to be my life.”
Throughout the first chapters, creamy description elicits a breathless but steady pace, and Gorokhova does such a stellar job of bringing to life her unyieldingly fascinating, risk-taking, mother — a doctor and anatomy researcher — alongside her grandmother’s struggle with poverty and hunger. Surely recollections of her own life teaching English and excelling within the Party will only grow more interesting. But the book disappointingly jumps to Gorokhova’s kindergarten years, falters and returns to that initially compelling prose only near the end.
Despite being beautifully described, an elaborate series of romanticized childhood anecdotes — Gorokhova’s nursery-school routine or fear of the dentist — are instead largely insignificant but generally familiar experiences. Had Gorokhova recounted these memories purely from her adult point of view, they might have carried more power, but apart from some intriguing thematic seeds — such as her family’s and country’s game of hiding the truth — they add little depth or development.
Gorokhova’s writing and storytelling are far better when focused on others (such as her dramatic sister Marina who wants to become an actress) or on times when she’s older and impetuous — secretly leading an American student around Leningrad, sojourning to the Crimea and living illegally on the beach with a man she just met or spending a licentious evening with her diplomat boss.
In the last few chapters, she fulfills her promise to reveal the relationship and circumstances surrounding her stealthy emigration. This compelling and unusual tale revives the book’s early, gripping energy and is inherently captivating, yet perhaps not enough to make readers forgive the plot’s slow, meandering path to this point. If Gorokhova can in the future tell a more focused story, her remarkable facility with language should undoubtedly keep us riveted from start to finish.
REVIEWED BY CHRISTINE THOMAS
for the Miami Herald, 3.7.10